By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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Some 200 people packed the meeting at the Sequim unit of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Olympic Peninsula on Wednesday night to hear from the council.
The Olympic Resource Protection Council, in a movement spearheaded by the North Peninsula Building Association, is seeking to legally challenge the state Department of Ecology rule, put into effect Jan. 2, that Kaj Ahlburg, a member of the council board, called a “Rube Goldberg scheme.”
“If there was ever a place to make a stand, we believe it is here,” said Ahlburg, a retired New York investment banker and attorney living in Port Angeles who has been active in property rights and health care issues.
Ahlburg said he hopes the challenge will prompt Ecology to “negotiate in good faith and give us what we ask for” in negotiations outside of a courtroom.
Ahlburg was joined on the panel by Greg McCarry, an organizer of the council, and FaLeana Wech, executive director of the North Peninsula Building Association, as well as Marguerite Glover, a Sequim real estate agent who was a member of the Dungeness Water Working Group when Ecology was developing the rule and who, along with Heidi Hansen, constructed a Sequim Association of Realtors website — www.sequimwater.com — in opposition to it.
The Dungeness water rule is for the eastern half of Water Resource Inventory Area 18, from Bagley Creek on the west to Sequim Bay on the east.
Ecology has said it is intended to protect water supplies for human consumption and fish habitat.
Dick Pilling of Port Angeles, Realtor and Clallam County Republican Party chairman, questioned that at the meeting.
No water shortage
“We do not have a water shortage in Clallam County,” Pilling said.
“It's not about water. It's not about fish. It's about control.”
The rule requires metering of new wells and also requires new water users to pay to mitigate the use of additional water from the Dungeness River basin by purchasing credits from a water exchange managed by the nonprofit Washington Water Trust.
The idea is to have those funds pay for projects that will augment the flow level of the Dungeness River.
Clallam County commissioners enlisted the trust to manage the water bank.
The trust was given an allotment from Ecology to start and is negotiating a deal to buy water rights from the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Irrigators.
Ahlburg said there is no safeguard to ensure the Seattle-based nonprofit will use money collected in Clallam County to fund projects in Clallam, adding that the trust's financial statements only show the overall statewide projects the organization manages.
“There is no way for the public to actually monitor that,” he said.
The panel, and many in the audience, said it felt the water bank could be managed better and with more transparency, with local oversight by county government.
Some called the new water fees “taxation without representation.”
Glover disputed the baseline science used by Ecology to form the rule, saying the target flow of 180 cubic feet per second has not been achieved since a river monitor began gauging its levels in 1923.
She also said the irrigators in the Dungeness Valley have been using less water, citing readings from gauges in the river to show the flow has been rising as irrigation ditches have been shored up to leak less water along their routes.
That, she said, has had the unintended consequence of dropping the levels of the aquifer, as the now-historic leaks from the ditches filtered through the soil to feed the aquifer.
With many properties in the southern portion of the water rule area barred from using water to irrigate their properties, Wech said, values there will decline as potential new well users learn they will not be able to water gardens or livestock.
Ahlburg added: “Just because you have a garden doesn't mean you can have a pony.”
There's currently no way as part of one of these packages for you to get water for cattle or a pony, etc.”
That, McCarry contended, will raise the tax bills of property owners in Sequim and the valley as levy rates increase to collect the same amount of taxes from a depressed property base.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.